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UK watchdog to probe overseas student visa row

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Press Trust of India London
The UK's National Audit Office (NAO) has launched an investigation into the government's handling of a visa row involving thousands of overseas students, many of them from India.
The NAO confirmed the investigation on Friday, days after a migrant group lobbying the UK Home Office in favour of the students, wrongly accused of cheating in a compulsory visa-related English language exam, had renewed its call for justice.
The NAO, which functions as the UK government's spending watchdog, has linked the crisis involving an estimated 36,000 student visa cancellations with the Windrush scandal, in which thousands of Commonwealth migrants were wrongly denied their British citizenship rights.
In 2014, a BBC Panorama documentary drew attention to the fraud in the UK student visa system, including widespread cheating in English Language tests. The Home Office revoked student visas where there was evidence of cheating, but its decisions have come under renewed public and parliamentary scrutiny in the wake of the Windrush scandal, the NAO said in a statement.
The NAO is looking at the information held by the Home Office on the number of people alleged to have cheated and the action the Home Office has taken to date, it said.
Migrant Voice, which has been lobbying parliamentarians over the issue, believes while many students were wrongly deported on false cheating charges following the BBC television investigation nearly five years ago, thousands remain in the country in an attempt to clear their name.
The core demand is for the UK Home Office/government to allow the students to re-sit the test and those who pass should be given their visa back, allowed to return to study or work and to drop the criminal allegation against them, said Migrant Voice Director Nazek Ramadan.
The group had found the backing of many British MPs last year, who set up an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) to mount pressure on UK home secretary Sajid Javid to rethink the government's handling of the issue, which dates back to when British Prime Minister Theresa May was the home secretary.
"The Home Office's handling of this issue has been spectacularly unfair and opaque, and it's high time the truth was brought to light, Migrant Voice said in a statement welcoming the NAO's probe.
The issue dates back to when the BBC aired an investigation into colleges offering the government-mandated Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) exams and revealed some cases of cheating.
The UK Home Office responded by launching an investigation and concluded that 33,725 of the test results were invalid and 22,694 questionable. Those with questionable results were given the chance of review but the others were made to abandon their courses and, in many cases, deported to their countries of origin.
Migrant Voice released the I want my future back' report last year to highlight the plight of many who claim to be wrongly clubbed in the invalid category. The group believes UK home secretary Sajid Javid, who had sought a fresh look at the issue, has reviewed the various representations and is expected to announce his decision on the plight of the students soon.
The UK Home Office has confirmed the minister is looking into the issue but has not laid out any time frame for a resolution to the dispute.
In reference to the NAO investigation, a Home Office statement said, "We have been supporting the National Audit Office in its work on this investigation since the start of the year.
We will consider the findings of the report once it is published."

The scandal involves the requirement for some UK visa applicants to pass a test of proficiency in written and spoken English. One of the approved tests, TOEIC, was provided by US-based firm ETS at a large number of test centres across Britain. Campaigners have questioned the software used to ascertain the cases of cheating in the spoken module of the test in the wake of the BBC TV expose in 2014.

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First Published: Apr 27 2019 | 4:40 PM IST

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